Middle East

Pressure Is Mounting On Netanyahu To Cancel Annexation

International and regional pressure is building on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to walk back his controversial plan to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank.

On June 12, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, in an op-ed piece for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, warned Israel that unilateral annexation would harden Arab views of Israel and demolish Israel’s aspirations for establishing relations with his country in particular and with the Arab world in general.

Yousef al-Otaiba and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Jordan has already advised Netanyahu that it will review its 1994 peace treaty with Israel should Israel unilaterally annex the Jordan Valley.

Two days before Otaiba issued his warning, Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, conveyed a similar message to Israel. On a one-day trip to Jerusalem, during which he met Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, he warned that annexation would be contrary to international law and antithetical to a two-state solution.

Maas was the first senior diplomat to visit Israel since the formation of Netanyahu’s coalition government last month,

Presenting himself as “a very special friend of Israel” who’s seriously worried by Israel’s drift toward annexation, Maas told his interlocutors that Germany’s objection to it is shared by its partners in the European Union.

Benjamin Netanyahu meets Heiko Maas in Jerusalem

This was an understatement.

According to reports, France, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg are pressing the European Union to adopt sanctions against Israel, or recognize Palestinian statehood, should the Israeli government opt for annexation.

Josep Borrell, the European Commission’s foreign policy chief, has told Israel that the annexation of Palestinian territory will “not pass unchallenged.”

Josep Borrell

In Britain, 127 members of Parliament have urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to impose sanctions should Israel annex parts of the West Bank.

In a few weeks from now, Germany is scheduled to assume the rotating presidencies of the European Council and the United Nations Security Council. Germany, one of Israel’s closest allies, is thus expected to play a key role in shaping European reaction to Israeli moves.

Maas, however, assured Israel that Germany will not impose sanctions, even if Netanyahu makes good on his promise to proceed with  annexation.

“Now is the time for diplomacy and for dialogue,” he said, referring to Germany’s desire to foster regional stability and renew negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which severed security cooperation with the Israeli army in response to Netanyahu’s annexation announcement.

Before Maas’ arrival  in Israel, German officials told the Israeli media that Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley would force Germany into an uncomfortable position. Germany would have  to choose between its friendship with Israel and its ties with the European Union.

The Germans retreated from that position, but let it be known that annexation would probably damage its bilateral relationship with Israel.

Ashkenazi, a member of the centrist Blue and White Party, assured Maas that Germany’s concerns will be taken into consideration before a final decision is made. He added that much work remains to be done before annexation becomes a fait accompli.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, left, and Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on June 10 in Jerusalem

As for the U.S. peace plan, which Israel has accepted but which the Palestinians have rejected, Ashkenazi described it as “as a important milestone” and “a significant opportunity.” Israel would pursue it in coordination with the United States and in dialogue with its Arab neighbors, he said.

The proposal, touted by President Donald Trump as the “deal of the century,” envisages Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley and all its settlements and outposts in the West Bank. It also foresees a limited form of Palestinian statehood in 70 percent of the West Bank should the Palestinians meet a number of stringent conditions.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House this past January

Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party, called the American plan a “historic opportunity” to advance the prospects of peace. But in the past few days, he has said that the annexation of the Jordan Valley must be coordinated with the United States and Arab countries, which staunchly oppose it. This formulation could be Gantz’s back-handed way of rejecting annexation.

In his talks with Maas, Netanyahu reiterated his belief that Israel must have full security control of the Jordan Valley, a point that the U.S. peace plan endorses. As well, Netanyahu said that Israeli settlements in the West Bank must be internationally recognized.

On the eve of Maas’ visit, Netanyahu informed the leaders of the settlement movement that Israel intends to annex all 132 settlements, representing three percent of the West Bank’s land mass and populated by some 450,000 Israelis.

He said the annexation of the Jordan Valley will take more time.

On June 10, the Israeli media reported that Israel will initially annex three settlement blocs — Ariel, Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion — rather than the Jordan Valley.

The Israeli settlement of Ariel

It remains to be seen what Israel will actually do, but it must act in “full agreement with the United States,” according to Washington’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

Most observers agree that annexation would cause a succession of problems for Israel.

Palestinian radicals would be emboldened and a new wave of violence could erupt. The two-state solution would be doomed because the mainstream Palestinian leadership, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, will never accept a non-contiguous Swiss cheese state in only 70 percent of the West Bank.

John Allen, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel, has warned that annexation would not only pose a threat to peace and the international rule of law, but to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and the viability of the Palestinian Authority.

On June 9, the Palestinian Authority submitted a peace plan to the Quartet, consisting of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia. It calls for the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state, with minor border modifications where necessary.

No further details were provided, but the Palestinians have always insisted they will accept nothing less than a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as the capital of their state, and would be ready to engage in land swaps with Israel.

These are the minimal demands of the Palestinian Authority, but the current Israeli government rejects them completely, hardening the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians.